Friday, December 25, 2020

Without a star to guide us

 Last year I wrote about an unfortunate situation that developed when one of our creche figurines got overlooked while packing up Christmas the year previously. It turns out that his gruesome experience being left out all year has provided sage counsel for his cousin, who, unknown to everyone except Charles Dickens, turns out to be a close cousin of one of the figures from our church creche. The saga continues...

Dear cousin,

I remember reading with horror about your experiences during the tumultuous year in which those thoughtless humans left you on their shelf all year to deal with that fierce cat and all of the non-Christmas, brutal world with its heat and politics. Well, now I need your help. You'll never believe what has happened.

When I first heard about your plight I was in my comfortable box with all of my companions for the off-season. I felt a little guilty about it, actually, but a long slumber between Decembers is our not unhappy lot, and there was little I could do. But the time comes every year to venture forth; one feels it in one's porcelain. It was time to wake up and join the tableaux once more. At first it was a pleasant anticipation, but then as the days lingered I grew more impatient. Surely they would come get us. 

But they did not. 

Finally, I got up the courage to open the lid of the box and peer out. There were no signs that anybody was around. In fact, the whole place was empty. 

After a thorough investigation, during which I determined that 1) our clocks and calendars are not off and that it is indeed December and 2) there does seem to be occasional human activity, but nobody is putting up any kind of Christmas decorations except for one small tree in the lobby, I have decided to write you to see if you are experiencing anything similar. What is going on this year? They've never not had Christmas! They couldn't! Surely!

Could they?

A wise man feeling not very 

Dear balthasazaris---hang it, I never could figure out how to spell your name. I wish you were one of the camels. They have names like Joe.

I'm afraid the situation is rather serious. There appears to be a deadly disease among the humans. They are avoiding gathering at places like yours. Our pair are at home in their usual mode, and they have decorated, and as I write this I am looking out from my usual perch on their media center. 

By the way, all the gang sends their regards. Including the sheep. They want you to know that. I think they have you mixed up for a shepherd.

I don't know what to tell you. Christmas is still going on, but you may have to sit in your box this year. It does sound like they are getting on as best they can and plan to have the usual full-blown celebration next time.


Dear Joseph (I have no idea why you like to use your nickname; it's confusing)

Your news is hard to bear!

The cast have practically mutinied. I had to let them out of their box for some air. We have decided to go on nightly walks around the sanctuary, which I heard is not unlike a tradition that the humans have for going around re-enacting the search for a place to stay by the Holy Family. Only when we are done circumnavigating the aisles one time we are all tired and need to get back in our box. It takes us several hours but it is peaceful. It is eery. It may even be somewhat holy. It is hard to know. Holy things are easier to know about in retrospect when there is less confusion. In any case, I hope you are all doing well. If there is any relief you can provide my heavy heart, please don't hold back. Otherwise, we will try to bear up under our load the best we can, but it is hard.

No Christmas! At least, not for us...

Balthazar (NB)

Dear B____

It is often during times of intense suffering that we are best prepared to grow into that which we must become. Of course, not all of our suffering is equal. Were you not a king you might bear up more easily under this sudden loneliness. Consider the shepherd. The bible has several, but in each manger scene there is always exactly one. Think about his existence, forever condemned to be without his fellow trade-persons, forever feeling underdressed in the presence of three kings! and yet, they are the cheerfullest fellows and do not even seem to mind it when you toss their sheep around.

Consider your companions. As you think about their needs and anxieties and how best to take care of them in this challenging time, your own difficulties may briefly vanish.

I don't mean that you shouldn't be sorrowful. It is hard for us all. Even those still in service are missing the usual Christmas gatherings; and in those houses where the merriment goes on as usual they fear the most because they know that some of that number will not be there to celebrate again.

I can tell you this: that suffering as I did last year has made me more patient, and more hopeful. It is not that there must always be light after darkness--someday there may not be. But as it has happened before so it might be again. And there is always something we can learn in the darkness if we welcome it into our souls as the fast before the feast. 

The other night something amazing happened in the skies. We were told that a Christmas star--your star, perhaps--would appear in the sky for the first time in 800 years. We rushed to the window, but of course it was cloudy and we couldn't see it.

But it was there anyway.

Yours in light and in darkness,


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Cease fire

Wars rarely settle anything--this is why they usually come in pairs. Or in several installments. The fault lines in Europe have, in reality, provided at least four world wars, though the first two are routinely known as the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic Wars, so even though they involve the same peoples primarily, they aren't given a number.

With this lofty example in mind, and given that there have also been several "police actions" that have killed people in the last century, perhaps this is really more of a squabble. But somebody though it would go down better if they attached the term war.

At this most festive time of year, we often see fit to make a slight provision for those who feel the need to start a war over whether or not we are allowed to say "Merry Christmas." I wish we lived in a world where nobody seemed bothered about it if we did, but that would involve going back and repealing the long history of Christians persecuting and killing people who they regarded as less than themselves, then and now. In other words, I have sympathy with those who would rather not be subject to drive-by Christmasses, particularly when they seem to be more of a threat than a promise. But it also seems that in reality, rather than on TV, most people do not take much offence, and certainly don't start a war over it, if they are suddenly Christmassed from close range. In return, it would be more than helpful if the Christmas lobby realized that their ears would most likely not fall off if they got Happy Holidazed instead. There are folks out there who celebrate other holidays and it might even be considered Christian to respect that. There is at least one fringe character from within the tradition who thought the two most important commandments involved loving God and loving your neighbor. But his teachings seem to have gone out of style.

I bring this up only because this year, in my limit wanderings out of home, to a big box store or two, the post office, a couple of drive-through lanes at the fast food, nobody wished me a happy or a merry anything. And I myself found, although I wanted to, I was afraid to try. The closer we got to Christmas the less I wanted to cork my own tradition by saying Season's Greetings, but I still didn't want to be offensive. Each year it seems that what I wish would translate to Love and Joy and Peace means that less and less because it keeps being used as a battering ram to do just the opposite. And just as in every war, this is justified because the people doing most of the shooting insist it is merely self-defense.

I think we have reached a place where, out of exhaustion, and general sadness, people just don't even want to go there anymore. At least that is what it seemed in my neck of the woods.

Now admittedly that was a small sample size. It has been roundly established by now that we all have our bubbles of experience and should not assume everybody else is getting the same vibes. 

But from where I sit, if it takes a long preamble to do it, I'd like to wish you a Merry Christmas. And if you need to translate that into some other words to make it accord better with your own tradition or your own habits, go right ahead. I don't own copyright on them anyway. They are simply an invitation to joy. An invitation is an invitation, not a threat. It doesn't have to be returned, or accepted. You don't need to RSVP. You can ignore it. 

I'm hoping to find joy in these waning, dark days of December, and I hope you do, too.

Monday, December 21, 2020


She died on her birthday. Maybe it is a sign of how much goal-orienting striving has taken over my life that part of me thought: good for her! She made it to a full year. Like crossing the finish line. And it was a round number. She was exactly 95.

The rest of me was sad and hollow. Marietta had been a friend of mine. I hadn't seen her in several years, since I moved away from Illinois. I wanted to visit her last year when I went out there for a concert, but her overprotective son wouldn't let me come. Apparently that's happened to a lot of people. I knew when I left town that I wouldn't see her again.

Marietta was an all-around nice person. But since the piano was such a big part of her life that is mainly how I knew her. She played piano/organ duets with me often when I was the organist at Faith church in Illinois between 2005 and 2016. There are a few stories I can tell.

First there is the story of how she and her husband met. It involved a car accident in which he "accidentally" backed his car into hers at a stoplight. He fessed up about it years later after a service. That was an amusing conversation to be part of! (I think that was also the most put out I've ever seen her)

In my mind she is always around 90 because that's when I knew her. But that didn't make her close-minded. After one of my more mind-bending offertories one Sunday morning (an instrumental Sanctus) she told me that it reminded her of the universe!

She had been a piano teacher for many years, and could be very demanding! When we practiced she always wanted to make sure we had the right balance between piano and organ. And if somebody goofed we tried it again. But she was too nice to say anything vulgar to the usher who turned the lights out on us during a postlude! 

(At the early service there generally weren't many people and the usher, a very consistently grouchy fellow, turned the lights out 45 seconds after the benediction and if you were still in the sanctuary, too bad!)

Whenever the piano needed to be tuned there were three stages it had to pass through since we had a tight budget. 1) the part where I noticed the piano was starting to lose its tune a little. It annoyed me, but I figured, nobody else yet. 2) the part where Marietta came up to me after the service and mentioned that the piano needed to be tuned 3) the day it suddenly 'fell off a cliff' and would be noticeable to the average person. That's when I got the piano tuned. 

I got to visit Marietta in her home a few times, and see the butterflies and and the bees that enjoyed her flowers. We always had something to talk about. I miss her.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Radio problems

The local classical radio station in Pittsburgh, WQED-FM, went off the air for a few days last week because of problems with their transmitter. Apparently some time on Thanksgiving Day the tower caught fire. This in itself is interesting because that afternoon I went for a run around Pittsburgh (no dinner to attend and a wife working, so why not?) and at one point I ran right by the station. I don't recall seeing anything on fire. 

One can imagine the frustration of not being able to broadcast. There was an alternative, however. The station can also be heard online, so it was to that medium that they took to appeal to listener patience and perhaps a temporary change in habits.

Trying to reach listeners can be challenging enough when the equipment works. It was around that same time that I realized that my little radio station might be shorting its own listener reach because the little advertisements I was putting in the corner of each page of weren't always showing up. All of that work goes for nothing if your viewers don't know it's there. 

And why would that be? Simply because I was calling my little files "ads" and anybody with an adblocker wasn't getting them. I renamed them "ants" earlier this week so now, prominently displayed in the right hand upper corner of each page should be a little box that tells everyone what is currently playing on Pianonoise Radio. Click on it and this week you'll be treated to an hour of Christmas-related music I recorded over the last few years here in Pittsburgh.

I can't, of course, control the listener's experience, as I've lamented before. The quality of the sound depends largely on the equipment of the one playing it. I had a lovely experience when testing the show; it turns on that my recent tablet acquisition has very suitable speakers. It is the first time I didn't mind the sound quality from computer speakers. Normally I have to use headphones, but I doubt most people are willing to do that. For that matter, most probably aren't willing to actually listen. But at least speakers are being made now of such quality that playing music in the background on your phone or computer doesn't sound too grating. 

The final component is the mood of the person listening (mostly or slightly). I can't control that either, although music is often used as mood control, and that, it just might be in my power to alter for the better this holiday season. I often look askance at the limited uses music is put to in order to affect its recipients like sonic caffeine, or sonic prozac, or some other sonic drug, but somebody is probably having a rough day, or a rough life, and could use a but of what is, after all, a relatively harmless drug. 

And if you find yourself getting addicted, there are another 40 hours in the archive. Just paste this into your browser window:


Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Beethoven's Pastorale

 It's Beethoven's 250th birthday today, and I haven't played a note of his music. Of course, I just got out of quarantine, so there's that, and we're in the middle of the Christmas season, so there's that (even in the year of the pandemic I have a good bit of seasonal music to provide). 

When I was in high school I used to pass out Beethoven's Birthday cards to mark the occasion. I hope he doesn't think I'm backsliding.

A strange thought occurred to me when I thought about what I might play for you of his music. What, after all, does one play to sum up, represent, a composer with such a huge and quality catalog of works? And what do I have in my stock of available recordings that might answer?

For the past several Christmases, I have been obsessed with a couple of genres. One of them is the Pastorale, a type of piece that evokes the countryside, and possibly shepherds (abiding in their fields), with its drone bass, triple time, and dotted notes creating a bucolic atmosphere that makes city-dwellers like myself (and most of the composers of these things) pine for the simplicity of the rustic life. The first year I looked at examples by Bach and Buxtehude which seemed connected to the Christmas story. Then some examples that for one reason or another different fit the "official" description of a Pastorale in one way or another; works by Pintaric (one practically a polka), or Parker, or Liszt--am I forgetting anybody? Probably.

Anyhow, it just happens that one of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas has the nickname "Pastorale" and indeed begins with a movement that includes a drone bass (repeated) and a leisurely triple-time melody that is just right for this kind of piece. And it's very relaxing.

However, it is the fourth and final movement that I'm going to play for you. It also has a drone and is in triple time, and is, by Beethovenian standards, pretty relaxed, save for the storm that pops up in the middle. It satisfies my obligation to observe Beethoven's birthday and it continues the tradition of posting a pastorale or two for Christmas.


Beethoven: Sonata in D, op. 28 "Pastorale" -- Mvmt. 4 "Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo"

---If you'd like to (re)visit some of those other pastorale-related entries, a good start is the ten-part series which is in the right hand menu under the caption "Shepherd Series"--subsequent entries include the Parker Pastorale, which can be found here. There's also an entry about one by Edwin Lamare. If you'd like more information about Beethoven, there is a series that I wrote while teaching a course of lectures on him a couple of years ago, also in the menu on the right, under "Beethoven" (duh)

Monday, December 14, 2020


 It began a week ago, with a slight cough and a little tightness in the chest. 

Covid symptoms.

Of course, anything is a potential Covid symptom. Anything and nothing.

But the lower respiratory part worried me. It even made it a little harder to breathe. And I had childhood asthma, so I know what that feels like. Not good. Kind of like you are dying.

But this wasn't nearly so severe. In fact, in the days since the onset, it only feels like a very, very, very mild cold. Which is sort of embarrassing.

But I can't take any chances. I'm supposed to quarantine immediately. That way, if I test positive later on, my doctor wife, who must quarantine 10 days from last contact with a person who tested positive, will get her sentence truncated, due to time served. And I won't infect anybody aside from anyone with whom I was in close contact last week, 5 to 7 days before symptoms. Only there really wasn't anybody besides her.

I called to my wife from the stairs. She asked me to choose a room. I went with the bedroom. I pulled my chair in there, and prepared to spend a week in isolation. It hasn't been too bad, really. The first time I was in this room for a long period I was going through chemotherapy and felt really terrible. The second time I had a bad case of the flu. This is cake. And I can watch Netflix. And when my new computer arrived I had plenty of files to post produce to send out to the church choir, files I had recorded already because back in November I was already worried that this might very well happen. I recorded all of the carols for Christmas Eve in mid-November. Usually I try to make Christmas wait a little, but this year...well, we could all use some extra cheer anyway.

It was a bit challenging having to stay in one small room all week, but there were upsides. My cat really missed me. Once I opened to the door to use the bathroom and she came charging toward me from 20 feet away, trying desperately to get in before I could close the door on her. I hurriedly closed the door. Help! I cried. There's a tiger outside and I'm trapped!

And may I say the room service was excellent. I would almost stay at this hotel again. Every time I needed food it just showed up at my door! I told my wife that I was going to be really bummed when this was all over and I opened the bedroom door and there was no food sitting there, waiting for me to eat it.

When I called my health providers the first day they suggested I wait a few days before getting tested because if you get tested on the first day of symptoms you often get a negative result that isn't really true. Wait a few days and you get a more authentic result. I wanted to be sure if my test was negative I could really trust it. A lot of tests seem to fail anyway. So I waited until the fourth day. Then they made me shove a large Q-tip up my nose and swish it around. I sneezed like crazy but I wanted to make sure it was accurate.

Today the test results came back...negative. No Covid detected. Waist of a quarantine?

Maybe. We are suspicious, though. So I'm going to finish out my time anyway. One more day, just in case. And when I bust out of here, It'll be a week and a half until Christmas. And plenty to do before it arrives. 

Pandemic or not, have a meaningful Yule, yinz!